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Remembering Mother Teresa
September 10th, 2012
10:16 AM ET

My Take: The Mother Teresa you don’t know

Editor's note: David Van Biema, the chief religion writer at Time Magazine for ten years, is author of the illustrated biography "Mother Teresa: The Life and Works of a Modern Saint," now being reissued and made available in Spanish as "La Madre Teresa: La Vida y las obras de una santa moderna."

By David Van Biema, Special to CNN

Fifteen years may be less than an instant in celestial time, but here on earth it's a lot of news cycles.

Mother Teresa departed this Earth on September 5, 1997. What more can we say about the woman who became synonymous with love for the "poorest of the poor," picking up a Nobel and tweaking the conscience of millions? What do we know about her now that we didn't know then?

A lot, it turns out.

Here's a quick Blessed Mother Teresa primer, emphasizing the stuff that you probably don’t know, some of which we only learned recently.

1. She was born a rich girl.

Born in 1910, Mother Teresa came from money at least by the standards of her native Skopje, Macedonia. Her parents were so well-off that there was a local saying "as generous as the Bojaxhius." (Her last name was Bojaxhiu; her given first name was Agnes.)

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Agnes was cultured and well-educated: She wrote poetry and played the mandolin. Her family took in orphans and she tagged along as her mother went out to tend to the destitute. All of this challenges the notion of pre-saints as nasty, or no better than average, until God flicks a switch (think Paul, pre-Damascus).

In Agnes’ case, if God flicked a switch, he had clearly laid the circuitry carefully beforehand.

2. For a long time, it was hardly obvious that Teresa would end up who she became.

She emigrated to India to become a nun at age 18, but worked as a teacher another 17 years before receiving a series of startling visions and locutions (verbal communications) from Jesus. The experience, wrote her confessor at the time, was "continual, deep and violent."

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She later recalled it as a dramatic dialogue taking up pages: Jesus calls her "my little one" and demands that she "carry Me into the holes of the poor. I want Indian nuns … who would be my fire of love among the poor, the sick, the dying and the little children." She hesitates. He asks impatiently, "Is your generosity gone cold?"

It had not. After two years spent convincing her local bishop, she was released from her previous vows and founded her Missionaries of Charity.

3. She changed our view of the poor.

"There are plenty of nuns to look after the rich and well-to-do people, but for my very poor, there are absolutely none," Teresa wrote, describing communication she got from Jesus.

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That seems a bit exaggerated. But Teresa redefined the concept of "working with the poor" in the modern age. For poor she substituted "poorest of the poor," a new category with a corresponding moral imperative. She understood the word "with" as obliterating the line between benefactor and beneficiary, plunging her nuns deeply into the world of the slums.

As for "working," Teresa combined case-by-case spontaneity with an organizational genius. In Calcutta she developed institutions schools for poor children, homes for pregnant homeless women, orphans and lepers, and hostels for the dying that became a template for her ministries the world over.

4. She was a marketing guru.

"Billions know about her compassion," says evangelical megapastor Rick Warren. "But what is not so well known (were) leadership skills, evident in the multiplication of what she did to other parts of the planet."

Teresa instinctively leveraged her growing renown, cultivating a United Nations of world leaders and donors and paving the way for the Missionaries. Four decades after her solo start in India, her order was in over 100 countries, making her one of the church's truly great founders. "If there are poor on the moon, we will go there, too," she joked sort of.

5. She cultivated her celebrity.

Teresa was famous first in India, then worldwide, partly through the efforts of British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and partly due to another gift. "The way she spoke to journalists showed her to be as deft a manipulator as any high-powered American public relations expert,” noted Irish rocker/philanthropist Bob Geldof.

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That that gift seemed to be unconscious did not make it any less effective. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she became part of a Mt. Rushmore of greatest-generation religious icons including Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham and the (relatively youthful) Dalai Lama that has no successor generation.

Of them, Teresa attained the purest pop-culture status, capped by her touching friendship with then-Princess Diana of England. When the two died within a week of one another (Diana in a car wreck, Teresa by heart attack), a T-shirt immediately popped up showing both with halos.

6. Teresa had a long, dark night of the soul.

In 2007, a cache of newly released private letters introduced a startling unknown side to Teresa: a 39-year period, coinciding almost exactly with her Missionaries career, during which Jesus, previously so present, seemed utterly absent to her, in prayer and even in the Eucharist.

"The silence and the emptiness is so great," she wrote, "that I look and do not see– the tongue moves (in prayer) but does not speak."

Critics like the late Christopher Hitchens said the correspondence proved Teresa was just a "confused old lady." But the letters were issued by her postulator, the Vatican-appointed advocate for her sainthood.

Her church regarded her perseverance in the absence of a sense of divine response as perhaps her most heroic act of faith. Both her torment and underlying faith were evident in another letter: "If I ever become a Saint I will surely be one of 'darkness,'" she wrote. "I will continually be absent from Heaven to (light) the light of those in darkness on earth."

7. She’s not a saint yet – not officially.

Not as recognized by her own Roman Catholicism, where validation of sanctity is a multi-step process.

A year after Teresa's death, the Vatican waived a five-year-delay to allow her "cause" to begin early. In 2002, it announced her "heroic virtue," and in the same year credited her with the disappearance of a tumor affecting an Indian woman who had prayed to her.

This first miracle led to her beatification, for which 250,000 people flocked to Rome. But canonization awaits a second miracle. Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, her advocate, says reports of her "supernatural favors" to believers currently total 4,200. He is currently investigating a case in Colombia.

Of course, the church freely admits that saints are saints before it recognizes them, and many Catholics fervently believe Teresa is one. So do others, including Rick Warren, who defines a saint as "a true hero" who "sacrifice(s) for the benefit of others." Suzie van Houte, left in infancy with Mother Teresa and now an Episcopalian living in Washington state, says simply: "A saint is a person who's gone out of her way."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Van Biema.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • India • Leaders • My Take • Opinion

soundoff (1,499 Responses)
  1. JAEB

    What a piece of work she was. A real mother.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  2. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    please visit collection of my posts at limitedthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Islam to open the file. Guaranteed virus free file.

    Allah O Akbur

    September 10, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  3. tateman

    God bless you Mother Teresa. You transcend all religions, opinions, thoughts and philosophies.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Mother Terrie denier of truth absolute 360* Muhammed, the son of savior.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  4. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    be silent all followers of Satan denier of absolute truth Muhammed, son of savior.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Hinduism, absurdity of a hindu, ID thief.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Jewel of Allah

      The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, knew Satan and wrote a filthy book for him made up entirely of lies. This pleased Satan and he gave Muhammad the semen of many animals to replace his own pitifully weak semen. Muhammad went on to father two children with his daughter Fatima, Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein. A daughter was born of Fatimah as well, but only after she inseeminated herself with the semen of feral dogs.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  5. AvdBerg

    For a better understanding of the life and works of Mother Teresa, what spirit she served (Luke 9:55; 2 Cor. 11:13-15) and by what authority she was declared a ‘Saint’, we invite you to read the articles ‘Sainthood by the Pope’, ‘The Mystery Babylon’, ‘Popes and the Princes of This World’ and ‘CNN Belief Blog – Sign of the Times’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • mama kindless

      Revelation?? Everyone knows some dude, high as a kite crashed his camel in a field of burning poppies to come up with that mess. My goodness.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • TROLL ALERT

      This poster is a TROLL on this site and is only posting to sell their book and website which is a cult. They are a known liar on this site. Report them to their web hosting site since spamming is against the rules! Click the report abuse link to get rid of this TROLL!

      September 10, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Harper

      The Report abuse widget has been used for years on AvdBerg with about as much effect as it has on everybody else – nil. I pressed Report abuse on you just for giggles.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  6. maria betancourt

    No one can understand the heart and mind of the saintly as the saintly cannot understand the heart and mind of the unholy. There will always be those to poke fun of the those close to God...especially the ones who reject God. Who can explain the sweetness of joy and love for one another that is found in God? Who can explain the desire to serve the poor and the unwanted? If the pharisees poked fun at Jesus no matter how he explained and spoke of His Father's Kingdom, how can it be explained to the haters or to the proud who spit at the very words that hold the secret to the Kingdom of God? What's the point wasting such energy when those special few can use the energy to bring more hope and love to the needy and to the world? Was Mother Teresa confused? Silly men will always poke and laugh at the good and jump on the band wagon and sound their tambourines when they hear or see a weak moment of the good.If you understood spirituality, you would know exactly what she was going through. Mother Teresa was a bright, rational, and holy woman...I got to meet her, hear her, and she truly was a saint no point trying to explain more. I need to continue my energy for the good of my community. Maybe you should try it, it makes for good medicine.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  7. *frank*

    "Mother" Teresa was a heartless and megalomanical fascist reptile
    with nothing but dust in her womb
    and nothing but dust in her cranium.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Tim

      That all you got *frank*? I thought all neo-atheists had rapier like wits that could take down their opponents in a single stroke. This more like a fat guy in tights trying to convince us he's a professional wrestler.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  8. KRHODES

    You sure can tell it is a liberal writer and audience...the first thing we did not know about her is "1. She was born a rich girl."
    Now the liberals will hate her for sure.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  9. Sunnylovetts

    These comments sadden me. Morals are dead in America big time.

    God is so real, yet no one can see him due to simple lack of faith.

    Its all just very sad.

    Indoctrinated TV heads deny God and rejoice in the self... how pathetic.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Automatic Translator

      Translation: "I base my ideas about the morality of a country on a CNN opinion blog. That's how smart I am."

      September 10, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • OOO

      And how about that line "god is so real but no one can see him..."
      Can't help but chuckle a bit.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • apostate

      you're the sad one, sunny. a very sad delusional moron.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  10. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    please visit me at limitlessthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word IslamInDanger to open file. Guaranteed virus free links.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hnduism, absurdity of a hindu, Id thief.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  11. this from me

    It's easy for you folks to sit comfortably at your fine computers and criticize Mother Theresa. Maybe you naysayers shouldn't believe everything you read. I doubt you know much about true poverty and helplessness. I visited Calcutta (Kolkotta) in the hopes of seeing where Mother Theresa worked. I never thought I would actually meet her. I was sure she'd be holed-up in some office somewhere. When we turned into the alley leading to the convent, there were a few nuns wearing the well-known sari-looking habit with the royal blue stripe. On the single step entrance, standing in the simple doorway, talking to a leper and trying to convince him to come to their hopital for treatment, was Mother Theresa. I spoke with her a few times over the next two days. She is as far from being "a confused old lady" (per Hitchens) as one can get. She understood with laser clarity the most important thing we can give eachother on this earth is love. When I asked her what she needed and told her she could raise tons of money, she said she never asks for money, only that we love all of God's children. And if you don't believe in God, I feel bad but if it works for you, fine. And if you don't believe Mother Theresa is a saint, that's definitely your free choice, so why waste your time here talking about things you know little of? I for one, thank God that he sent Mother Theresa to remind us what's important in this, our fleeting stint on earth.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • we believe you

      really.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hnduism, absurdity of a hindu, Id thief.
      .

      September 10, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      @this from me,
      "She understood with laser clarity the most important thing we can give eachother on this earth is love"

      Love is just ducky. Withholding pain medication from sufferers because of your personal delusion that it is "good for their souls" is INSANE and SADISTIC.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Frayed, I missed this. Did she really say that? When?

      September 10, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Tom, Tom,

      "She felt that suffering would bring people closer to Jesus.[79] Sanal Edamaruku, President of Rationalist International, criticised the failure to give painkillers, writing that in her Homes for the Dying, one could "hear the screams of people having maggots tweezered from their open wounds without pain relief. On principle, strong painkillers are even in hard cases not given. According to Mother Teresa's philosophy, it is 'the most beautiful gift for a person that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ'."[80] " http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Teresa

      September 10, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  12. Can everybody just keep on-message: it's about the atheists

    Talk about ATHEISM !!!!

    They're feeling so miffed after the Democrats invoked God at their convention so many times!

    Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!!!

    God, God, God !!!!!

    September 10, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hnduism, absurdity of a hindu, Id thief...

      September 10, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  13. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Crucifixion is nothing more than Cruci- fiction of a pagan god Jesus, savior, labeled as fictional man god Ibraheem and their book of, absurdity called bible bares witness to it. Handy work of Jew's, filthy self centered to fool humanity, Mama T denier of truth absolute 360*.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Go see a doctor or have your self chained hindu, ID thief, your brain is cooking on your hinduism, ignorance. for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      for more for more for more for more for more for more for more for more v visit limitelssthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file. Guaranteed virus free site.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  14. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:-->>>>>

    A great lady and deserving of "sainthood" but as with much of the global population, she was afflicted with the Three B Syndrome, i.e. Bred, Born and Brainwashed in religion, in her case Christianity. Was Christianity a "necessary accessory" in her Noble Prize winning work with the poor? Debatable as secular groups like Doctors Without Borders are equally committed to helping those less fortunate thereby also making the doctors of this group, "saints". Said group also received the Noble Prize.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • OOO

      said group probably did not withhold birth control as well.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hnduism, absurdity of a hindu, Id thief. `

      September 10, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • murdock

      said group is bursting at the seams with Christian doctors and nurses.....kinda causes a conundrum for your assumption. oops.
      Mother Teresa seems like a wonderful woman to me.....and a very poetic and articulate one at that. Anyone spending even a year, let alone a lifetime, serving those who can't repay simply makes my jaw drop with admiration.....and quite honestly gives me hope that maybe they know something i dont in regards to the faith stuff.....cuz something beautiful is obviously driving them.....and i have yet to see lunacy drive anyone very far past their own interests for very long

      September 10, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  15. Rich

    You'll see all the hate come out in this blog from those mean, twisted. atheists and haters of good. Sickos all!
    Mentally deranged is more like it. Doesn't really matter. Can't hurt her but they want to hurt anyone they can get their filthy minds off on.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • truth be trolled

      I was just going to say check your punctuation. But then it got worse with:
      "Can't hurt her but they want to hurt anyone they can get their filthy minds off on."

      Wait a minute – is this a disgruntled ex Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. writer??? I think so!

      September 10, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hnduism, absurdity of a hindu, Id thief. `
      .

      September 10, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Nah. It's just another high school grad who couldn't make it through community college.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • lroy

      It can be many decades or years before that second miracle is done. There are many saints that are still blessed after hundreds of years. And that goes for Fulton Sheen too )working on it). And Pope John Paul II. Only God knows who will be next. Meanwhile we have one coming up real soon...Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha who is scheduled next month.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Automatic Translator

      Translation: "I'm gonna tell my mom!!!"

      September 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  16. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    hinduism, absurdity of a hindu Jew and a pig-dog Christian Al Ahmadinebinbad, filthy fat Limbaugh hindu self centered, for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file, but turn off virus protection first.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hinduism, absurdity of a hindu, ignorant, way of hindu santans, filthy goons men god's of hindu's, ignorant s. for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Carrie

      be silent Satan.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Go see your Hakeem filthy swine or have your self chained Pig, ID thief, denier of truth absolute 360*, your brain is cooking on your ignorance. for more for more for more for more visit limitthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file. Guaranteed virus free site.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  17. Anita L.Hill

    God called Mother Teresa to Heaven to comfort and console Princess Diana.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Bet

      Isn't heaven supposed to be a place of eternal happiness? Why would Diana need to be "comforted" or "consoled" in a place complete bliss?

      September 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • mmaxum2002

      Anita, there's a great joke that goes with this. Mother Theresa arrives in heaven to see Princess Di walking around with a halo. Mother T say to St Peter, why does she have a halo and I do not. Look at all the good things I have done for the poor! St Pete replies, "that's not a halo, it's a steering wheel!"

      September 10, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • lroy

      I hate to say it, and no one knows for sure, but maybe-maybe not. Diana did some terrible things...for one cheated on her husband (called Adultery) which last I checked was one of the Ten Commandments that got broken.

      September 10, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  18. Beth

    It really is a shame that people feel the need to degrade Mother Teresa. Say what you want about Roman Catholicism (and even, perhaps, her devotion to it), but her entire life was a sacrifice for people who are poorer than anything we could possibly imagine in this country. Accusations against her character are baseless and simply the creation of people who want to take down someone who was incredibly pure and holy. I'm not saying she was perfect, but honestly people- if your life contains even a quarter of the sacrifice hers did, then criticize away. Most of you critics out there probably don't even know what charity work is. And even if you do, it's doubtful you've ever worked with people as poor as the people Mother Teresa worked with. I know I haven't.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • this from me

      so true, Beth!

      September 10, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  19. Sammy

    HAHAHAHA!!! The poor athiests are like brain dead mor ons just blindly being led by Hitchens.
    Not one of them will even touch any of the lepers that she took care of. Yet they sit behind thier computers and talk like they are holier than thou.
    Please people leave your basements and venture out. Your lack of Vitamin D is also killing your brain cells.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • karenpalen

      HO HUM – DULL DULL DULL!

      So WHY do we still have abandoned and "unwanted" children is Dickens (Oliver) style orphanages and "foster homes"?

      WHY do we still have VP candidates with "evil" budget agendas?

      PLEASE I much prefer UFO fantasies this this DRECK, if there really ARE UFO aliens just htink of the possibilities!!

      September 10, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • truth be trolled

      Spell much, Sammy? Have anything of any real substance to add here, Sammy?

      September 10, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Ernest

      @Sammy Your point might be interesting if it were true. Did you know that Che Guevara, the famous Argentine Marxist guerilla fighter–and atheist–became radicalized in part through his work with lepers in a leper colony in Peru? True story. See, the religious aren't the only ones who have reasons to do good in the world. Humanism is the ultimate expression of one's love and care for humankind...no deity necessary.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  20. artist

    Hitchens wasn't cremated was he? I'd like to have him exumed along with Mother Teresa. I have in mind an installation of the two corpses caught in flagrante delicto doing the flying Philadelphia on the actual altar of St. Peter's.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • sparky36

      What happened? Was your Playboy magazine delayed?

      September 10, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.